History can develop in many directions
Historian Georg Eckert on a parallel situation a hundred years ago
Mr. Eckert, you teach and research modern history at Bergische Universität. You recently published a book that deals with the 1920s. 1923 seems to have been a particularly crisis year, which allows many parallels to 2023. First and foremost, you can certainly mention inflation, can't you?
Eckert: The fact that we are so worried about inflation today is one of the long reverberating lessons of 1923: It is no coincidence that since this extreme experience of asset destruction, there are far greater fears of currency devaluation in Germany than in many other countries. As precarious as the current situation is, into which many households have fallen with the wave of inflation that has been going on for some time - in Germany anno 2023 there is worrying inflation, in Germany a hundred years ago inflation was already galloping, which in anno 1923 ballooned into an enormously threatening hyperinflation. It destroyed many livelihoods and also confidence in banknotes and the state in general. At the time, municipalities and companies even issued their own emergency money, and in some places bonds were issued for material assets such as timber or grain. This was logical, because postage stamps were overprinted with astronomical "billion" values, which were, however, worth nothing. At the end of the hyperinflation, the Reichsbank even had a banknote for "100 trillion marks" printed.
The issue of energy shortages was also on people's minds a hundred years ago. What was it like back then?
Eckert: As a result of the rapid devaluation of money in the German hyperinflation, even some people who had once been wealthy no longer knew how to procure everyday goods such as food and heating coal; the desperation reached deep into the middle classes. One can imagine the enormous desperation in a society that had already had to endure such hardships during the First World War. In the fall of 1923, people had to wait in long lines for food, if they could afford it. In some large cities, there were soup kitchens, and around 300,000 children were evacuated from the Ruhr region in order to at least survive elsewhere. Not only did many people have to live in hunger, but also in the cold because of unaffordable everyday consumer goods. For hyperinflation, for its part, was itself engulfed in an energy crisis - namely, the Ruhr occupation,
All the world is currently looking at the invasion of the Russians in Ukraine. We also experienced that here 100 years ago with the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops. What was the trigger, so soon after the First World War?
Eckert: It depends on whom you ask: Most French and Belgian contemporaries thought that their troops should have occupied the Ruhr because Germany had fallen behind with its reparations. After two wars originating in Germany, they had their reasons to weaken their powerful neighbor in the long term, that was really the point - France in particular would have preferred to achieve a separation of the Ruhr from Germany and supported relevant separatist efforts. All sides had prepared themselves for such an occupation scenario; an invasion of the Ruhr had already been threatened by the London ultimatum of May 1921 to force Germany's agreement to the payment plan announced there. In view of the great economic crisis in Germany with high unemployment, the Allies did agree in 1922 to accept in-kind deliveries instead of monetary payments in retaliation for the costs of the world war started by Germany. However, as early as December 1922, they certified a supply backlog, and French and Belgian troops moved into the Ruhr region on their own authority from January 11, 1923, in order to fill more extensive transports of coal, coke and steel. From the point of view of most Germans - the aforementioned separatists excepted - however, this was just another pretext for ruthlessly weakening and demonstratively humiliating Germany. A loss of the economically immensely important Ruhr region seemed to them to be another fatal continuation of a hostile Allied policy that had culminated in the Treaty of Versailles. After all, the Rhineland, from which the advance into the Ruhr began, was already occupied by Allied troops anyway, in accordance with the peace, which was perceived as disgraceful. The Reich government could be sure of unanimous approval when it announced "passive resistance" just two days later - the Reich took over the wages of the Ruhr workers in the process. This was financed by the banknote press: just like the production standstill in the Ruhr, this was an important factor in the already enormously high inflation suddenly turning into hyperinflation. At the same time, some (incidentally, also from Elberfeld) engaged in "active resistance," which ranged from sabotaging train lines to assassinations of the occupiers - Leo Schlageter, executed by the French, was glorified as a martyr, just as, conversely, French soldiers were celebrated in their homeland for an aggressive occupation policy: They also shot uninvolved civilians, sometimes using Germans as human shields, and there were also rapes. All this happened in a mutual escalation dynamic that often occurs in occupation situations.
The Allied occupation was also joined by separatist groups, but they were not necessarily supported by the population. In the Weimar Republic, which was hated by many, there were riots with deaths and injuries. We are experiencing political discontent again today. Is history repeating itself here?
Eckert: We don't want to hope for it, but we really don't have to fear it immediately either: at least not in the manner that we know from the crisis year 1923 - in which several immediately crushed coups d'état took place in Germany. The occupation of the Ruhr and hyperinflation led to a violent domestic radicalization in the still young parliamentary democracy. Communist forces sought to use the unstable situation in October 1923 for uprisings in imitation of the October Revolution, but there was only one uprising around Ernst Thälmann in Hamburg. The Hitler putsch in Munich on November 8 and 9, 1923, which in turn was supposed to initiate a march on Berlin along the lines of Benito Mussolini, was by no means inconsequential, but initially unsuccessful. The fact that there were fatalities in the Hanseatic city as well as in Bavaria already marks an important difference to our time. Online in particular, one can now also observe a considerable brutalization of political debate, but today's political discontents in Germany are being aired in other ways that are certainly not always nice, but still peaceful. We have a tried and tested constitution behind us that has stood the test of time for almost 75 years, along with the experience that political disputes have to be to a certain extent. The circumstances then and now are very different.
In your book "Die Zwanziger Jahre" (The Twenties) , you also refer in one chapter to the you also speak in a chapter about the contemporary longing of people for redemption and something new. Today, this longing for redemption seems to be flaring up again. Digitalization offers new opportunities, and young people in particular want to live a different life. Home office and more individuality are already noticeably changing the job market. The shift to the right in Germany is clearly noticeable, and there is already a first district administrator and an AfD mayor. The political barometer now shows more votes for the AfD than for the SPD. Today we know that the development at that time led to National Socialism. To what extent can knowledge of what happened a hundred years ago help us avoid making the same mistakes again?
Eckert: Historians are bad advisors, at least insofar as one can make much bigger mistakes in the search for supposed analogies; in any case, there are no patent remedies, especially since we have to realize, when we take a comparative look at many Western countries, that a sometimes considerable increase in voters in the right-wing or extreme right-wing spectrum probably represents a specific reaction to the enormous transformation processes of recent decades (and also to the fact that the enthusiasm of some for "change" triggers fears in others). But historians tend to be somewhat relaxed because they know that history can develop in many directions: People have it in their hands. How the AfD's election results develop also depends on the behavior of actors from other parties, who certainly have their share in the corresponding increases in votes. To turn it around to 1923: There was not only a Hitler, but also a Stresemann, for example, who, along with many others, was responsible for the astonishingly rapid stabilization of the Weimar Republic after this disastrous year of crisis. So we need not worry too much. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that - and this is also the subject of much discussion these days - dwindling prosperity, for example, poses a challenge to democracy: If the population loses confidence that the government and parliament have a far-sighted view of its well-being, the mood can quickly change. In this respect, there are already repeat structures in history that are worth reflecting on. At the same time, a look at the year 1923 renews the finding that things sometimes happen much faster and quite differently than one thinks: Before the beginning of 1923, only a few contemporaries predicted a combination of occupation of the Ruhr and hyperinflation, but even fewer contemporaries would have dared to hope at the end of 1923 that the "Golden Twenties" would soon begin, which they did and which might even have brought "Golden Thirties" if the Great Depression had not intervened.
Dr. Georg Eckert studied history and philosophy in Tübingen, where he received his doctorate with a study of the early Enlightenment around 1700 with a British focus, and habilitated in Wuppertal. In 2009, he started as a research assistant in history and now teaches as a private lecturer in modern history.